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Legends: Terry Wogan ~ the blarney marvel

November 16, 2011

Pudsey’s pal: the bear may have a bandaged eye, but there’s been a twinkle in Terry Wogan’s for more than 40 years – during which he’s become a charity ringmaster and national treasure

Let’s face it, Children In Need is unimaginable without him, he was the voice of Eurovision for an entire generation, he ruled the breakfast airwaves like nobody before or since and he may just have been around for as long as Brucie. He’s Terry Wogan; the Irish broadcaster blessed with über-blarney who seems to have helped make Britain what it is today. And he is, unquestionably, the latest deserved inductee into the Legends corner here at George’s Journal.

Yes, for decades the screens in the corners of the country’s living rooms and the radios on the shelves of its kitchens have been the home of Wogan. Neither audiovisual appliance – indeed, maybe none of them in any British home – has ever been free of the man’s sardonic yet cheery expression and the lilting tones of his soft brogue. There have been many imports from the Emerald Isle that, over the years, have enriched these fair islands – Oscar Wilde, Jonathan Swift, even Dave Allen – but none have fitted quite so seamlessly, so cosily and seemingly so effortlessly into the UK consciousness as the Togmeister himself, Terry Wogan.

He was born Michael Terence Wogan on August 3 1938 in Limerick, the largest city in the Irish county of the same name. His father was a grocery store manager and saw to it that the young Terry had a strong religious upbringing, the latter attending the fee-paying Jesuit secondary school Crescent College from the age of eight. When Wogan senior was made a general manager, he moved his family to the Irish capital Dublin and Terry, now 15, joined Crescent College’s sister school in the city, Belvedere College.

All the Catholic doctrine and culture absorbed by the child and adolescent Wogan was to have a profound effect on him – but surely not the one his father had envisaged: the former turned away from the church. Indeed, in later years (2004 to be exact), he remarked on his upbringing: “There were hundreds of churches, all these missions breathing fire and brimstone, telling you how easy it was to sin, how you’d be in hell. We were brainwashed into believing”.

At Belvedere he developed an artistic bent, participating in school plays, and became interested in early rock ‘n’ roll. Yet, his career that would become synonymous with pop music was not to start until later. For, on leaving school around the age of 18, he was employed at a branch of the Royal Bank of Ireland in Dublin. Fairly soon, however, he realised banking wasn’t for him and applied for a position he saw advertised in a local paper for an announcer with the Irish national broadcaster Raidió Teilifís Éireann (RTÉ). Securing the post, Wogan had now entered the heady world of broadcasting – and wouldn’t look back.

Man and wife and hitting the heights: Terry and wife Helen in 1970 (l), getting chummy with Bond star Roger Moore (m) and flying on a wire during a Christmas edition of Blankety Blank (r)

Unlike, say, Chris Evans, though, he wasn’t exactly an overnight success. It wouldn’t be for the best part of 10 years yet that Terry would make his name and eventually cross the Irish Sea. Over the next decade then, he learnt this trade. In his first couple of years with RTÉ, he found a niche for himself as an interviewer and presenter of documentary features. He then moved on to the entertainment department and – for the first time – worked as a disc jockey, as well as a TV variety show host. One such programme he fronted was a favourite with the viewers, the quiz show Jackpot, which established Terry as an Irish media celebrity. In short, he’d made it.

In reality, his father had always wanted him to be a doctor, but Terry knew he had found his calling – plus, in school at least, he’d never really worked hard enough to stand a chance in the medical profession. “I only ever did enough to pass exams,” he confessed later. “I never had any capacity for preparing for anything. That’s why I’m so lucky to be in a job where I make it up as I go along.”

Indeed, as if making it up as he went along, when RTÉ dropped Jackpot Terry took an unusual step for an Irish broadcaster – he approached the BBC for work. Perhaps to his surprise, perhaps not, the Beeb, recognising his talent, acquiesced and on September 27 1966, he appeared on the British airwaves for the very first time as he presented on The Light Programme (the forerunner to Radio 2) ‘down the line’ from Dublin.

The big change for Wogan and family (by now he was married – he’d tied the knot with Helen Joyce in April ’65 and together they’d have three children across the late ’60s and early ’70s) came with the establishment of Radio 1 at the end of September 1967. Conceived as the Beeb’s alternative to the now illegal offshore ‘pirate’ stations, such as Radio Caroline, that had built a dedicated audience among the turned-on, tuned-in ’60s youth, it quickly proved hugely popular with this demographic – a position it’s cannily never relinquished – maybe thanks to poaching many of the pirate stations’ best loved DJs.

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Wogan, obviously, wasn’t one of them, but that didn’t stop him from fronting the Tuesday edition of Late Night Extra for two years. And this led to him covering colleague Jimmy Young’s mid-morning show throughout July ’69, which in turn led him to being offered the 3-5pm afternoon slot permanently. He readily accepted it and enjoyed being broadcast simultaneously on Radio 2 as well as Radio 1 owing to budget shortages. During this time he also undertook a regular and unenviable commute from his family in Dublin to his studio in London.

The move to Radio 2 alone came in April 1972 when he took on the mantle of the station’s breakfast show – the broadcast with which he’d become most associated for the rest of his career. With his family now ensconced in Blighty and he himself having found his natural home at the nation’s most cosy-cum-populist media outlet, Wogan became the huge star the twinkle in his eye must have always threatened he’d become.

In the ’70s (as well as, admittedly, every subsequent decade) there was simply no avoiding him. If he wasn’t waxing lyrical on the wireless to Britain’s waking masses, he was on the box presenting the Blackpool-based ballroom-dance-focused show Come Dancing (1949-98) or, yes, commentating on The Eurovision Song Contest for the BBC (he did so first on the radio in ’71, from ’74 to ’77 and again in ’79; he did so on TV in ’73, again in ’78 and forever after from 1980 – see middle video clip).

His first filling of the Radio 2 breakfast show’s chair would last for more then 10 years, during which time he built up a daily audience of nearly eight million listeners. His brand of easy-going, mellow Irish tones blended with knowing, near over-verbose wit proved a fine fit with large numbers of the nation over 25 who preferred not to wake to the likes of Tony Blackburn, Noel Edmonds or Dave Lee ‘The Hairy Cornflake’ Travis and their start-the-day diet of ’70s pop and rock on Radio 1.

Inevitably, Wogan’s ubiquity drew mockery from some quarters, but all of it good-natured. For example, both the comedy trio The Goodies on their madcap BBC2 show (1970-80) and the popular humour-based folk pop group The Barron Knights made him the butt of many jokes. And, being a master of self-deprecation (which has always been among the biggest aspects of his appeal), Terry himself was adept at taking the mickey out of himself. In fact, then – as now – he revelled in it.

Cartoon characters: with a thrice-weekly chat show, Wogan suffered from overexposure in the ’80s (l), but his 1991 encounter with fantasist David Icke was cracking car-crash television (r)

A case in point was his release in 1978 of The Floral Dance, whose instrumental version by The Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band had hit #2 in the UK charts at Christmas the year before; Wogan’s take on it reached #21. Surely only hard-hearted souls begrudged Terry this indulgence, though, as he’d played a descisive role in the tune’s first chart success – it had been him who’d brought it to peeps’ attention in the first place by playing it on his show as he, er, sung the lyrics over the top of it. Buoyed by this admittedly dubious musical success, he released both a follow-up single Me And The Elephant and a self-titled album, neither of which (probably rightly rather than wrongly) made it into the charts.

In 1984 Wogan made the decision to focus on his TV career full-time, handing over the reins of the breakfast show to Ken Bruce. Aside from his frequent work on Come Dancing and for Eurovision, he’d already scored a big hit on the box with the so-bad-it-was-brilliant celebrity panel- and double entendre-driven gameshow Blankety Blank (1979-90); the premise of which seemed to be for its hosts and guests to wallow in its cheap and tacky production values as much as possible.

The public loved it, especially on one occasion when Radio 1 DJ guest Kenny Everett grabbed the end of ‘Wogan’s Wand’, his trademark car aerial-style microphone (which, true to the show’s cheapness, actually was an adjusted car aerial), and bent the thing to a ridiculous angle, forcing the former to carry on with the intrument in that condition for the rest of the recording. Whenever Everett guested on the show thereafter, he’d scupper the microphone each time – once doing so by attempting to cut it in two with a giant pair of scissors. Over 20 years later, Wogan himself would destroy his wand – as it were – for comic effect in a one-off Blankety Blank special broadcast as part of a Children In Need night.

Terry quit Blankety Blank the year before he finished on Radio 2, to be replaced as host by comedian Les Dawson. As it was now the ’80s, perhaps inevitably he moved on to the abundant TV variety show of the age: the chatshow. The first he fronted was BBC1’s Saturday evening effort What’s On Wogan? (1980), which although only boasting a single series gave him an important grounding in the format and led to 1981’s one-off Saturday Live, on which he interviewed Larry Hagman aka JR Ewing in Dallas (1979-91).

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In 1982, BBC1 gave him another crack at a series with the simple-as-pie titled Wogan (1981-92). Unlike his previous chatshow, this one quickly gained traction with viewers. In its first season it was brodcast on Tuesday nights, only to be shunted into the late-night Saturday slot vacated by the legendary Parkinson show (1971-82). Here it remained for its next two series until 1985, when it moved back to weekday evenings – broadcast thrice weekly (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays) – for the rest of its run.

Given the show’s profusion, it became something of a cultural firmament of the decade, featuring many a memorable moment. From Chevy Chase remaining silent throughout an interview to Anne Bancroft appearing to be a nervous wreck during hers and Ronnie Barker announcing his retirement in 1988 to George Best’s unfortunate drunken appearance in 1990 when he told Terry what he enjoyed in life was ‘screwing’, Wogan notched up several impromtu gems.

One such unmissable episode was the host’s encounter in April 1991 with former TV sport presenter David Icke, who claimed that he was the son of ‘a godhead’ and that the Earth would imminently be devastated by tidal waves and earthquakes. Wogan and his audience found Icke’s proclamations both absurd and amusing and, predicatably, it was to become Terry’s most recalled interview – for right or wrong. A few weeks later, Des Christy in The Guardian suggested the show had been a ‘media crucifixion’; indeed, it led to Icke retreating from public life as he became a figure of ridicule. When Wogan interviewed him again in 2006, the former admitted that his comments the first time around may have been ‘a bit sharp’.

The Beeb eventually gave Wogan its marching orders in the early ’90s in order to launch Brit-expats-in-Spain soap opera Eldorado; the latter was an unmitigated flop, but in all fairness the former had really had its day too. It almost felt like Terry had reached the stage where the public had had enough of his mug on the telly (one 1992 poll suggested he was somehow both the most and least popular person in Britain) and, perhaps sensing that, in 1993 he took over the reins of the Radio 2 breakfast show once more. It was a canny move, for after all his TV chatshow years, it was his second stint helping get Middle England out of bed in the mornings that seemed to turn him into a genuine national institution.

Having his cake and eating it?: Terry hosting Eurovision in the UK in 1998 with Ulrika Jonsson (l) and posing with Pudsey and a life-sized ‘Terry cake’ created for Children In Need in 2009 (r)

Officially named Wake Up To Wogan, the broadcast became less a radio show, more a daily check-in with an avuncular commentator on the country at large, as Terry laced observations on a supposedly increasingly ‘PC gone mad’ Britain with absurdist, nay, childish humour thanks, in no small part, to the innuendo-laden stories listeners would send in ostensibly about Radio 2 newsreader John Marsh that spoofed the Janet and John series of childrens’ reading books from the 1950s and ’60s (see bottom video clip).

Wake Up To Wogan‘s popularity saw it regularly attain around eight million listeners – as well as afford its star an army of fans/ followers who nicknamed themselves TOGs (Terry’s Old Geezers and/ or Gals). Just like their hero, TOGs would – and still do – happily embroil themselves in fundraising efforts every year for the one-Friday-night-in-November charity-a-fon that is Children In Need (1979-present), which was first fronted by Wogan in 1980 and every year thereafter. They also, like millions of others, gobbled up albums by both folk pop artists Katie Melua and Eva Cassidy, whose careers were partly kick-started by Wogan championing them on his show (the latter posthumously, of course).

Throughout both the ’90s and ’00s then, thanks to his cosy but wry emplacement on radio, annual hosting of Children In Need (which seems to raise more and more each year; over £30 million last time out) and, of course, his delightfully unrestrained, acerbic commentary to the Beeb’s broadcasts of Eurovision, Terry not only re-established his popularity, but also pulled off the trick of reaching different demographics at the same time – his appeal was equally embraced by the supposedly PC-hating swathes of middle-aged Middle England as well as the kitsch-loving youth who stage camp Eurovision parties every May.

Fittingly, he was given an OBE in 1997, followed up by a knighthood in 2005 (he’s allowed to call himself ‘Sir’ as he nowadays holds British, as well as Irish, citizenship), was announced Radio 2’s ‘ultimate icon’ in 2007 in honour of its 4oth anniversary and, most important of all, was awarded a Gold Blue Peter badge in 2004. Indeed, he may have commentated on his last Eurovision in 2008 and broadcast his last breakfast show in 2009, but is now arguably more popular than ever. No question then, when this year’s Children In Need kicks-off this Friday, I’ll be tuning in, yes, not just because it’s a fantastic charity event but also, well, because it’ll be fronted as always by lovevable old Terry. And I won’t be the only one; TOGs, Eurovision addicts and general TV viewers in their millions will be doing exactly the same – whether they’ll admit it or not. Because it may never have been cool or fashionable to like or even love Wogan, but so many of us do – and, frankly, why the blarney wouldn’t we?

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Those wonderful Woganisms

Ten of the best from our Tel…

Who knows what hellish future lies ahead? Actually, I do – I’ve seen the rehearsals” ~ at the beginning of the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest

That’s the same song the French have been singing since they hung the washing up on the Maginot Line” ~ during the 2006 Eurovision effort

Thank God we’ve all had a few drinks – if anyone can kill a crowd these two can” ~ during another Eurovision, specifically about the presenters

She and I have taken up the diet of Monsieur Montignac which revolves around goose fat, red wine, cheese and chocolate – so long as you don’t combine it with bread and potatoes” ~ on going on a diet with his wife

They’re not laughing with you, they’re laughing at you” ~ during his notorious interview with David Icke

There can be few things more irritating than returning home, braced and fresh-faced from holiday, to find that everyone who stayed at home has got a better tan than you” ~ waxing lyrical about holidays

They came out in rehearsals looking like the World of Leather – you could have made a couple of settees out of them” ~ another Eurovision quip about the Dutch entry in 1997

I speak well of the Cypriot entry as I sit next to the Cypriot commentator – and she’s a fine big woman!” ~ and another from the year 2000

And to sing for Cyprus, and wearing his mother’s curtains – Konstaninos!” ~ on the 1996 Cypriot Eurovision entry

Be of good cheer, we’re nearly half way through – it’s about this time I reach for the bottle” ~ during the 2001 Eurovision contest

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Further reading:

http://www.terrywogan.com

http://www.bbc.co.uk/pudsey

http://www.bbc.co.uk/pudsey/grants

To donate to Children In Need:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/pudsey/donate

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Children In Need 2011 begins at 7.30pm on Friday November 18 on BBC1

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 16, 2011 12:24 pm

    I have no doubt that Terry Wogan is a lovely man.
    He certainly has done many jobs throughout his career and raised lots of money for charities.
    But I am afraid he is not everybodies choice… including me!
    I respect him, but I would rather not listen to him!
    🙂

    • November 16, 2011 8:35 pm

      Well, you can’t please everybody!

      Thanks for your comment, as ever, Peter… 🙂

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